When tragedy strikes, one that hits especially close to home, what can you possibly do, beyond burying the dead, mourning the loss, and coping? Beyond all this, what can be done to help? These were the questions I asked myself when, on that fateful Saturday morning more than one year ago, I watched news reports that worshippers at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Congregation had been attacked by an anti-Semitic gunman.
Like many, I sat glued to my television screen, learning that 11 people lost their lives on Oct. 27, 2018, in a moment of pure hatred. As the shock dawned on me, ideas about how I could help ran through my mind. I ultimately made a donation to a Pittsburgh cause and then continued to channel my energy into my work as a Jewish summer camp director at NJY Camps, in the hope that strengthening young people’s Jewish identities and positive values would serve a greater cause and show strength in the face of loss.
A few weeks later, I received an email from JCC Association of North America — of which NJY Camps is an affiliate — describing a deployment of Jewish professionals to the Jewish Community Center (JCC) of Greater Pittsburgh to support the community’s recovery efforts and provide respite for the staff, who had never been afforded time to grieve. This initiative, called JResponse, was part of a pilot training program to evaluate how the JCC landscape could be utilized and deployed to support specific communities during moments of need, such as this one. I don’t think any of us imagined this level of tragedy as the backdrop for our first deployment, but we gladly traveled to support the community in the aftershocks of the attack.
In the run-up to the Tree of Life tragedy’s first anniversary this year, I was again given the opportunity to return to Pittsburgh as part of JResponse to support the community’s efforts to observe the occasion. I imagined it would once again be a very powerful experience, and I braced myself for the feelings of one year prior to come flooding back, and yet I still wasn’t fully prepared for the emotional and psychological toll it would take, both on myself and on those I was there to help.
I was one of 20 individuals from across the continent representing JCCs tasked with helping to streamline the JCC of Greater Pittsburgh’s one-year anniversary commemoration. I directed traffic, answered members’ questions, escorted visitors to use the resources of the new Resiliency Center, and checked in people who came to donate blood. I listened to people’s stories as they relived the events from last year. I hugged, cried, and stood with a community in mourning. This was by no means the most difficult day of work I’ve ever had, but in the context of where I was, and why, it was truly one of my toughest.
As the day wound down, the city of Pittsburgh gathered at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall for a planned service. I remained at the JCC with the other JResponders as we watched the live feed. There wasn’t a dry eye in the building. That moment, for me, summed up why being part of the Jewish community and serving as a Jewish professional is so special: The ability to connect with a diverse group of JCC professionals over a shared mission, in the face of unspeakable hardship, is powerful beyond words. I will gladly go back next year.
I returned to New Jersey prouder than ever to work in the Jewish community, and with an ever-stronger sense of purpose for my job as a camp director. It’s a tragic shame that it takes an event like the attack in Pittsburgh to reenergize our efforts to do good and gracious work. At the same time, if that’s a silver lining we can take from the Tree of Life tragedy, perhaps that can be one of the ways in which we draw meaning and find ourselves able to start that hard work of healing.
Sam Aboudara is the director of Teen Camps at NJY Camps in Fairfield.